PUENTE Theatre: In the beginning,
there was the Interview!

For over twenty years, PUENTE Theatre of Victoria, B.C. has been creating plays about the experiences of immigrants in Canada.  “I wasn’t born here,” (1988), “Crossing borders” (1990), “Familya” (1992) and “Canadian Tango 09” (2009), deal with stories of how immigration affects the lives of Latin American women, men, couples and families. The community plays: “Sisters/Strangers” (1996), and “Storytelling our Lives” (2002 and 2006), include stories of women from around the world.  With “Canadian Tango 09,” we focused on couples living in mixed racial/cultural relationships.

PUENTE productions are based on extensive interviews following guidelines we have developed over the years. Our interviews are conducted by the participants in the shows, mostly the actors, but also those involved in other capacities. Most of these participants are immigrants themselves, as such, they empathize with our topics. We train interviewers to listen with full attention, to respect the answers they receive, and to avoid making comments or giving advice. We discuss the purposes of the interviews and of the  need for emphatic listening, and we practice by interviewing each other.  Whenever possible, we hire an expert facilitator to conduct the training.

The number of interviews varies between fifty to one hundred. For “I wasn’t born here” and “Crossing Borders” we did no more than fifty each.  For “Familya” we interviewed eighty-one immigrant teen-agers and parents from Mexico, Chile, Poland, Vietnam, Colombia, etc. For “Canadian Tango”, we interviewed ninety Canadian-born people married or partnering with Chileans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Koreans, Colombians, etc. Some couples were gay.

As the director, I’m concerned that interviews focus on questions that lead to actions, stories, images and situations that can be staged—not about general information or statistics regarding the immigrant situation. We are not conducting an academic study, we are staging a play. Our questionnaires ask things like: What words do you associate with the word “immigrant”? How did you imagine Canada before coming here? What has been your best moment as an immigrant so far? —Your worst moment? We get answers like: “when we are back in Africa and I am not in the minority”—“giving birth to two children and wondering what they would look like.” We ask for metaphors of the immigrant experience—of their relationship with their parents—of their marriage, etc.. We get: “We are like the sun and the moon: they are hot and the source of life and I am small, cold and distant to them”—“Being stuck in a hurricane [that] keeps swirling and never ends, constant destruction”—“It’s like a house: pretty outside but winding and complicated inside” — “A brick maze with no exit”—“We are like a zebra”—“A lost ship stuck in the ocean”—“Sheltered from the world under an umbrella.”  After all the interviews are done, we compile the responses. These make for fascinating reading, and provide an inspiring foundation for our work.

I don’t consider PUENTE’s work to be ‘verbatim theatre’, even though it resembles it. For us the interview is only the beginning of a sequence of interpretations by several people. Early on, we abandoned recording devices, preferring instead to take notes. When we started doing interviews in 1988, we found that the interviewees seemed intimidated by the tape recorder. We began to appreciate that, by writing the answers, we were sharing a process of interpretation: First the person interviewed interprets his/her experiences, then the interviewer does it with his/her notes and observations. This process continues in the rehearsal hall: interviews are acted out in front of the cast, different elements and commonalities are observed and used in improvisations and movement sequences. Scenes are created, many are discarded, and some we continue to work on until finally the shape of the play is discovered and we start making sense of the material. It is a long process, one that doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s an exciting exploration, and it involves the entire cast. Everyone must keep an open mind and trust the process. A hundred possibilities are tried and only a few are kept.

We complete our research by inviting the public—particularly but not exclusively, those who have been interviewed—to take part in workshops.  Here they create ‘living sculptures’ (Image Theatre) representing their experiences; we also offer Playback Theatre experiences, where an audience member first tells a personal story and then watches it improvised by the Playback ensemble. These workshops add new scenes, moments, and directions to our plays that make them truly community efforts—embraced as such by our audiences. Participants often tell us that their experiences and opinions seem valued, and they feel pride and ownership of the artistic achievement represented by the play—and that participating in the research process helps them reflect on their situation as immigrants and to come to terms with it.

The stage is a place of power, and for any immigrant, to see our reality reflected on stage is affirming and exciting; it makes us feel included and valued, and this helps to strengthen us to solve our own problems and to contribute as equals with the rest of society.

Printed in Alt.Theatre December 2011